The CCC California Conservation Corps: low pay, hard work; Stories of success and failure in corps

The Bollinger Canyon Fire Center of the California Conservation Corps is housed in what once were residences for Army personnel manning a Nike missile site.

Since there is room for only 60 people, director John Oubre says, Bollinger is one of the smallest of the 26 CCC centers strategically placed from Siskiyou in the far north to San Diego in the south.

The primary mission of the C's at Bollinger is helping control brush, grass, and forest fires. Lately, they've been fighting water, not fire - sandbagging levees in the San Joaquin Delta.

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The C's here also perform community projects: They recently built a baseball field and stands in nearby Oakland and a trail and viewing platform for the handicapped in Mt. Diablo State Park.

On this morning Mr. Oubre is pensive; he has just said goodbye to Archie, a corps member from Los Angeles who could not get up enough self-motivation to work on his GED certificate.

Archie was a good worker who got along well with his crewmates, but after many attempts to get him to fulfill his educational obligation, Oubre finally had to dismiss him.

He's concerned about what lies ahead for Archie. He says he hopes the young man will decide to take one final option available in the CCC: Under a second-chance policy, Archie can write to the corps director, Robert J. Shelbe, requesting reinstatement.

Up to 45 percent of the people who join the corps give up, or get ''fired,'' before fulfilling their one-year contract. But though their cups of success are not running over, Oubre and other CCC leaders obviously consider them more than half full. There are a lot of successes. For example:

Lisa Sargent had finished high school and was drifting from one minimum-wage job to another when she applied for the CCC at the urging of a friend who had already joined. After four months, she is in charge of the Bollinger Center's warehouse.

''It was a mess when I got here,'' she says proudly. ''Now we know just where everything is. . . .''

Never particularly interested in reading or writing, Lisa now writes ''five or six pages a week'' in her journal (which all CCC members are required to keep and write in daily). Also, ''I'm doing more reading now than before.''

Lisa is at ease with the interviewer and expresses herself more than adequately. She attributes that to the CCC educational program: ''I've learned to talk to people, to interview, to write a resume.''

Lisa admits she wasn't much of a student, although she managed to get her high school diploma. And, she says, ''I just wasn't motivated'' after getting out of school.

What comes after her year in CCC is up? ''I've already talked to the people at Caltrans (California Department of Transportation), and hope to get at least a part-time job there.''

One senses the people at the car wash in San Diego where she used to work won't be seeing Lisa again.

Tanya Holbron is a crew leader at Bollinger - two months into her second year with the CCC. In a few days she will be heading to Yosemite National Park to work in the prestigious ''Back Country'' program. She's not very large and isn't sure she can meet the physical demands of carrying a heavy backpack and moving large logs and rocks - but she's determined to test herself.

Tanya didn't have to learn self-confidence in the CCC. A top student and leader in high school in Los Angeles, she could easily have gone to college. But she ''wasn't ready for that routine.'' She had no trouble obtaining good-paying office jobs, but that didn't satisfy her, either, since she yearned to be outdoors.

''In CCC there is both a physical and mental challenge,'' she says. ''In fire work where you work long shifts, sometimes through the night, it takes both mental and physical effort to keep going and concentrate on the job.''

What will she do after her second year in CCC? ''I might try for a job with Vision Quest (a program that tries to turn wayward youngsters around by putting them through a pioneer-style challenge). Or maybe I'll try to get on as a seasonal firefighter for the CDF (California Department of Forestry).''

She says she might even go to college someday.

Ted Fuller, a student now at Mount Diablo College in Pleasant Hill, Calif., was another high school achiever who passed up campus life for the outdoor challenge of the CCC.

''I lived in the same house (in suburban Pleasant Hill) for 18 years,'' Ted says. ''I wanted to see something different, and I liked being outdoors. I applied for the C's because I knew college would still be here when I got out.''

Because there was urgent need for firefighters in August 1980 when Ted entered the corps, and because he measured up physically and mentally, he was assigned immediately to a Fire Center, passing up the initial eight-week CCC training period. After a week of instruction and physical training, he found himself on a fire crew.

As his first year in the CCC drew to an end, Ted Fuller decided to apply for training as a crew leader. He was accepted and eventually found himself fighting the Medfly for Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in the early spring of 1981.

He says he matured physically and mentally in the CCC - learned how to work and how to be a leader. ''I would do it again,'' he declares, but ''not everyone should join the CCC. It's a program for any individual who hasn't had responsibility in life - hasn't needed to do anything for himself.''

Eduardo Marin Jr. of San Diego seconds that notion, though not in such articulate fashion. Having dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, Eduardo was never able to find steady work. He finally applied to the CCC and was admitted in October 1982.

Now he works at the E-Con (Energy Conservation) center in Stockton, is ''going for my GED,'' and wants to become a specialist in the corps. That, of course, would mean a second year in the CCC.

Eduardo says he was very shy when he entered the corps, but that has been overcome to a great degree and he has gained self-confidence.

The E-Con Center is more specialized than most others. Those assigned to it learn how to conduct energy audits of homes and other structures and how to install conservation and solar-energy devices.

Even if he doesn't become a crew leader or other specialist and stay in for another year, Eduardo has a leg up on employment in the growing energy conservation field.

Back at the Bollinger Center, John Oubre talks frankly about the inevitable problems in dealing with groups of young people of varied backgrounds - and opposite sexes. Male and female housing is separate - much more so than in most colleges now - but relationships are bound to develop. Corps members are not permitted to marry and stay in the CCC, but some leave to get married or do so after serving their year.

Some men don't know how to treat women, says Oubre, particularly in a situation where they are working side by side at physical tasks. Some women become pregnant and have to be discharged from the corps.

Oubre has found it helpful to have separate sessions for the men and women occasionally ''to try to get them to see the kind of situation they are in, and the pitfalls.''

Pregnancies, ''affairs,'' and other relationships that ''get in the way of work'' have been measurably decreased, he says.

''It's just another learning and growing experience,'' Oubre concludes, and individual responsibility is ''a key, up and down the line,'' from the CCC director to the newest recruit.

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